NEVER A DULL MOMENT: The Ocean State’s distinctive politics offers a target-rich environment
Former Providence Journal reporter Elliot Jaspin’s astute observation — that Rhode Island is a theme park for journalists — is just as applicable for watchdogs of good government. So when Christine Lopes took her job as the new executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island in October 2006, she didn’t have to worry about a lack of grist for the mill.
Lopes has steadily ramped up her efforts in the time since, focusing on such perennial Common Cause topics as open records, voting integrity, campaign-finance-reform and separation of powers — the effort to create a more even system of checks and balances in the Ocean State.
In one such example, she used a ProJo op-ed earlier this month to highlight the absence of accurate public information about the makeup of state boards and commissions. While the topic might seem dry and remote, Lopes noted how the votes of Rhode Islanders could have been nullified this fall had Governor Carcieri and other elected officials not belatedly filled vacancies on the state Board of Elections.
Lopes, 32, an unabashed policy wonk, grew up in Avon, Massachusetts, and graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She previously worked for Service Employees International Union, Local 509; as a legislative aide in Boston; as campaign coordinator for the first candidate in Massachusetts to use Clean Elections’ funding; as the field director for a campaign to promote early childhood education; and as deputy chief of staff for a legislative leader, Byron Rushing, on Beacon Hill.
We talked this week in her office in Wayland Square, Providence.
Given Rhode Island’s political history, how does the state’s ethical climate compare with what you expected to find here?
It’s much more on the minds of everyday Rhode Islanders that I thought. It’s higher on the priority scale of issues that are facing the state than probably I anticipated. The [reality], I think, is better than what people on the outside think of Rhode Island. You hear about the national stories — you hear about the corruption cases — but there are actually a lot of legislators who are really doing great things or trying to do great things. The hype is a little bit bigger than what’s actually happening in Rhode Island.
Since you started with Common Cause, have there been any “ah-ha” moments that made your teeth curl, or on the other hand, made you think things are better than you expected?
The last nights of the [legislative] session are definitely kind of that light bulb goes off of how quickly things are moving, and how many mistakes can be made very quickly. In most legislatures they leave everything for the end as a pressure mechanism — to really put pressure on the members to move things. I was aware of that, but that [last-minute rush in the General Assembly] was one minute that kind of hit me, like, wow, a lot’s happening in a very short period of time. No one is double-checking things, and that was a serious alarm.
Last week, Common Cause’s national organization ran a full-page ad in the New York Times — and I imagine it may have been in other newspapers — featuring an upside-down American flag, asserting that the nation is in a state of crisis, because of threats to the constitution. Do you see the related issues impacting here in Rhode Island?
I think they’re actually very closely related. The national office is taking on a new campaign, called Abuse of Power, and talking about the executive branch — not just this current administration, but past administrations, and really overextending its power and going into areas where they’re not supposed to be going. And I think that clearly mirrors what was happening in Rhode Island with separation of powers.